PITFALL reinforces the careful-with-clients theory proffered in Double Indemnity, doubling down on the idea that working for an insurance agency is more exciting than you’d think (based on policy agents you’ve been spellbound by). Superior 1948 noir with genre vets Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr, plus Jane Wyatt for a dash of decency. Beyond the expected edgy patter, compromised situations and bursts of violence that make for an entertaining escape into desire and danger, its resolution raises irony to the level of tragedy: this one sticks with you afterwards. *
‘John Forbes’ (Powell) is married, has a child, and a nice house in Los Angeles, but the boring routine of being an insurance adjuster is dimming his spark. After getting info on an embezzlement case from unsavory private eye “Mac” McDonald’ (Burr), John visits the jailed swindler’s girlfriend to retrieve expensive gifts she’d been given. After a prickly start, he and the woman begin to enjoy each other’s company. John loves his wife ‘Sue’ (Wyatt), but ‘Mona Stevens’ (Scott) stirs allure that he can’t ignore. Trying to untangle from a furtive fling becomes a walk through a mine field when Mac, obsessed by Mona, turns from irritant to threat.
Karl Kamb’s screenplay was based off “The Pitfall”, a novel written by Jay Dratler (Laura, Call Northside 777), and under the smooth but unblinking direction of Andre De Toth, the entwined destinies (including that of Mona’s jailbird ex, played a tad broadly by Byron Barr) inexorably lead to a baleful reckoning that spares no one.
Numerous humor-goosing intrusions from the score (uncredited, Louis Forbes) are clankingly off-base, but otherwise everything clicks, from the daytime views of bygone, pre-freeway Los Angeles to the jarring assaults that occur in the shadows. Powell was not a demonstrative actor on the surface, rather employing his voice to excellent sardonic effect. Lissome, suggestive Scott makes her character not merely enticing but engaging and sympathetic, caught in a 3-way bind with three completely different men. Wyatt’s role is not showy on its face, but strong and affecting when it counts. Burr gets one of his nastiest, most calculating villains and his already imposing form is accentuated by those late 40s broad-cut suits that turn him into a hulk.
Done for around $1,000,000, Pitfall placed 106th among 1948’s dossier, grossing $2,900,000. With Jimmy Hunt (as the son: five years later he’d earn sci-fi immortality as the boy who spies Invaders From Mars—an even worse case of upset family life), Ann Doran, John Litel and Dick Wessel. 86 minutes.
* Quick-with-Quips meets Ready-made Minx—at 43, Powell’s days as song & dance goof were gone with the fog, having brought wised-up attitude to Murder My Sweet, Cornered, Johnny O’Clock and To The Ends Of The Earth. 1948 also had him out for justice in Station West and Rogues’ Regiment. Languorously tempting, 26-year-old Scott had already shaken & stirred The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, Dead Reckoning, Desert Fury and I Walk Alone.
It’s a dirty job, but…—Raymond Burr, 31 at the time, was a busy boy in ’48, with parts in nine movies. Later in life, he unburdened to columnist James Bawden. “I was just a fat heavy. I split the heavy parts with Bill Conrad. We were both in our twenties playing much older men. I never got the girl but I once got the gorilla in a 3-D picture called Gorilla at Large. I menaced Claudette Colbert, Lizabeth Scott, Paulette Goddard, Anne Baxter, Barbara Stanwyck. Those girls would take one look at me and scream and can you blame them? I was drowned, beaten, stabbed and all for my art. But I knew I was horribly overweight. I lacked any kind of self esteem. At 25 I was playing the fathers of people older than me.”
Objection!—Burr’s confident creep in Pitfall cut too close to the badge for one Arthur J. Fitzpatrick, a former Beverly Hills policeman: he sued the writer, the producer and United Artists for 300 grand (that’s nearly 3.5m in 2022).
Heavy metal—vintage car fanciers note that the family car Powell tools around in is a ’47 Ford Super Deluxe convertible coupe, and his company ride is a 1948 Studebaker Commander Land Cruiser.
Case load—director Andre De Toth had considerable experience with the consequences of infatuation, clocking seven marriages (including 8 years with Veronica Lake), amassing 19 children. Born in Hungary as Sasvári Farkasfalvi Tóthfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály, he had a motto: “Don’t be careful. Have fun. I did.”